The world lost an irreplaceable treasure yesterday. The legendary composer and pianist Dave Brubeck, whose singular brand of musicianship and artistry changed the sound of jazz in the 1950s while ushering in an entirely new way to listen to the music, died the day before his 92nd birthday.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet had a sound like no other. Brubeck had studied classical music with French composer Darius Milhaud, and although he and his quartet were often considered integral contributors to the jazz genre known as West Coast “cool,” Geoffrey C. Ward writes in Jazz: A History of America’s Music (the companion book to Ken Burns’ PBS series), that there was “nothing remotely cool” about Brubeck’s playing:
He was a fiery, uncompromising improviser—dissonant, unsentimental, rhythmically daring. … His style was perfectly complemented by the playing of alto saxophonist Paul Desmond: light, lyrical, floating …like the sound, Desmond himself famously said, of a dry martini.
On a wintry March night in 1953, the Dave Brubeck Quartet performed in Oberlin College’s historic Finney Chapel. This alone was remarkable; Oberlin, home of the renowned Oberlin Conservatory of Music, was a bastion of classical music. Jazz? No one studied jazz at the conservatory in those days. Jazz was something kept under wraps and underground. Until Brubeck. And the aftermath was groundbreaking. Ward writes:
The audience—including the conservatory students—responded with ovation after ovation. The concert was recorded, and the album that resulted—Jazz at Oberlin—helped build enthusiasm for Brubeck. He was signed by Columbia, the nation’s biggest label; made another live album, called Jazz Goes to College; and soon found himself the leader of the most popular jazz group in the country.
Fifty years after that historic concert at Oberlin, I had the opportunity to meet Dave Brubeck. He had returned to campus with his current quartet to perform a concert marking the 50th anniversary of Jazz at Oberlin’s release. Because I was in charge of media relations for the conservatory, it was my task to publicize not only the concert—ensuring that every seat in the 1,200 capacity chapel was filled—but also the fact of the iconic jazz master’s return to the scene of his great achievement.
He was gracious and down-to-earth, with a twinkle in his eye and a sincere interest in Oberlin’s students. He generously signed the liner notes to my copy of Jazz at Oberlin. He walked slowly when he went out on stage, but when his fingers hit the keyboard, he was transformed; he played with the vigor and athleticism of a man half his age.